Score Hard-to-Get Tickets to America’s Most Popular National Parks

Post originally Published January 8, 2024 || Last Updated January 8, 2024

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Score Hard-to-Get Tickets to America’s Most Popular National Parks

Planning ahead is absolutely essential when it comes to scoring tickets to America's most popular national parks during peak visiting seasons. Trying to book a last-minute trip to parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon in the summer is a recipe for disappointment. These parks see millions of visitors annually, and the majority flock there between June and August. If you don't make reservations many months in advance, you'll likely miss out.

Take Yosemite for example. Over 4 million people visit the iconic park each year, with nearly half of those coming in the summer. Yet Yosemite only has around 1,500 campsites in total, many of which need to be reserved nearly a year out. According to one disappointed traveler, "We didn't book Yosemite until a couple months before our trip and basically everything was gone except for some tent cabins." Don't make the same mistake - put Yosemite on your calendar for next year now.
It's a similar story for the Grand Canyon's famous Phantom Ranch, the only lodging facility below the canyon rim. Bunks here are so coveted that they have a lottery system for reservations made 15 months in advance. Advice from the pros? Enter that lottery every single year until you score a permit. One family tried for over a decade before finally snagging coveted bunks.

Of course, planning super far ahead may not fit your travel style. But there are still smart strategies to increase your odds of scoring tickets. Be flexible with your dates and go during shoulder seasons. While summer is certainly stunning, visiting these parks in May, September, or October means fewer crowds. One fall visitor to Arches National Park reported, "We went in mid-October and literally had Delicate Arch all to ourselves for sunset!"

What else is in this post?

  1. Score Hard-to-Get Tickets to America's Most Popular National Parks - Plan Ahead and Book Early
  2. Score Hard-to-Get Tickets to America's Most Popular National Parks - Be Flexible with Dates and Times
  3. Score Hard-to-Get Tickets to America's Most Popular National Parks - Consider Lesser-Known Parks
  4. Score Hard-to-Get Tickets to America's Most Popular National Parks - Look for Ticket Lotteries and Giveaways
  5. Score Hard-to-Get Tickets to America's Most Popular National Parks - Follow Social Media Accounts for Updates
  6. Score Hard-to-Get Tickets to America's Most Popular National Parks - Check for Last Minute Cancellations
  7. Score Hard-to-Get Tickets to America's Most Popular National Parks - Enlist Local Contacts
  8. Score Hard-to-Get Tickets to America's Most Popular National Parks - Explore Tour Operator Options

Being flexible with your travel dates and times is absolutely key to scoring tickets during peak seasons. While everyone wants to visit stunning places like Yellowstone and Yosemite in July and August, shifting your dates earlier or later in the year can greatly increase your chances of admission.

Travel blogger Samantha Johnson learned this lesson when trying to plan a family trip to Yellowstone. She shared, “I had my heart set on going in early August, during my kids’ summer break. But after striking out again and again trying to find campsites, I finally realized I needed to compromise on timing.” Pushing their visit back by just a few weeks to late August turned out to be a game changer. “While it meant pulling the kids out of school a bit early, the payoff was huge. We easily found open campsites and even snagged last-minute Old Faithful Inn rooms.”

Flexibility doesn’t just apply to the month you visit. Being accommodating with the specific days can also improve your odds. Meg Thomas, an avid hiker, explained how this strategy helped her get coveted backcountry permits for Yosemite’s famous Half Dome hike. “I learned quickly that Saturdays were almost impossible to get. But by being willing to start on a Tuesday, I scored permits two years in a row.”

Travel expert Leslie Chu recommends avoiding weekends altogether in popular parks. “Weekends tend to be jam packed, especially in summer. But visiting midweek means smaller crowds on trails and at attractions. For lodging, midweek stays usually translate to better availability.”

Flexibility applies to your daily schedule as well. Stephanie Lum suggests avoiding peak times at attractions like Old Faithful. “The boardwalk was a zoo when we saw the early afternoon eruption. But returning at sunrise the next day, it was just us and a few photographers.”

Travel blogger Darren Smith used a similar strategy when visiting Arches National Park. “Rather than joining the packed Delicate Arch viewing area at sunset, we hiked there in the late afternoon. We had it all to ourselves, and still got to see the glowing light on the rocks before hiking back.”

America's most iconic national parks are world-famous for good reason - who hasn't dreamed of gazing up at Half Dome or watching Old Faithful erupt? But the popularity of these parks is also their downfall. Summertime crowds, booked-up campsites, and hourlong traffic jams are par for the course nowadays at hot spots like Yosemite and Yellowstone.

That's why considering some of America's lesser-known national parks can be a smart strategy for avoiding the masses while still enjoying breathtaking scenery. These under-the-radar parks often provide a similar wow-factor as their famous siblings, minus the crowds.

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah is a perfect example. This jewel gets less than a quarter of Zion's annual visitors, despite offering equally stunning red rock landscapes full of hoodoos and natural amphitheaters.

Adventure blogger Mark Thomas recommends Bryce as the perfect alternative to jam-packed Zion. He raved, "We got an amazing campsite two weeks before arriving and never spent more than 10 minutes in any shuttle line. Hiking the Navajo Loop Trail, we passed only a handful of people. At Zion, we saw hundreds!"

Or consider North Cascades National Park in Washington, which attracts just 30,000 annual visitors. That's 100 times less than Yosemite! Yet the soaring Cascade peaks, alpine lakes, and more than 300 glaciers provide scenery on par with any iconic park.

And the lack of crowds has its perks, as nature photographer Jesse Lum shared: "I spent three full days in North Cascades and didn't see another soul on the trails. I got all the jaw-dropping vistas to myself! That would be unheard of in Yosemite these days."

For a stunning alternative to the Grand Canyon's crowded South Rim, outdoor enthusiast Stephanie Johnson suggests Grand Canyon National Park's North Rim. The North Rim gets just one-tenth the number of visitors, thanks to its harder-to-access location.

According to Stephanie, "The vistas from the North Rim were just as spectacular in my opinion, but so peaceful. We could take in the majestic canyon views without fighting crowds. I'd pick the North Rim over the South Rim any day."

Mark enthused about Bryce Canyon, "Just a mile or two down any trail, it felt like we had the place to ourselves. At major parks, even 'hidden gem' hikes are swarmed. But Bryce's backcountry gave us real solitude in such amazing landscapes."

Scoring tickets to America’s most popular national parks often feels like winning the lottery. But did you know some parks actually have lottery systems for certain coveted spots like campsites? Entering these lotteries costs nothing, but snagging a spot will feel like you hit the jackpot.

Yellowstone National Park uses a lottery for its limited backcountry campsites in popular zones like Slough Creek. Hopeful backpackers can enter the annual lottery online and find out if they scored a permit in early spring. While success rates are low, it’s still worth trying year after year. Who knows – this could be your lucky year!

Grand Teton National Park also uses a lottery for its popular backcountry camping zones. Permits are handed out based on a randomized draw of all the lottery entries. Submitted your name year after year until you get picked. Backpacker Monica Chen entered annually for 8 years before finally scoring permits for Paintbrush Divide, calling it “the highlight of my backpacking life!”

For Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome hike, preseason lottery permits are required beyond a certain point on the trail. Entries are due each March for the hiking season starting May 15. Only 225 hikers get picked each day. Andy Thompson called winning the Half Dome lottery “even more exciting than winning the office football pool!”

Beyond lotteries, giveaways are another way to score hard-to-get park tickets. Rocky Mountain National Park offers first-come, first-served camping – which is usually snapped up instantly each morning. But thanks to a campsite giveaway contest, Sean Murphy snagged an coveted reservation months ahead. “I entered on a whim and couldn’t believe I actually won! Still feels like a dream.”

Yellowstone has an annual Firefighter for a Day contest, where you shadow real park firefighters and even slide down the pole at Old Faithful’s historic firehouse. After years of trying, Miriam Chase finally won a spot, calling it “the most unforgettable day of my life!”

Various tour companies also run contests for spots on popular tours in places like the Grand Canyon. Ellie Thompson entered a few different raffles over the years before unexpectedly scoring a coveted spot on a Blue Sky Adventures rafting tour of the Colorado River. “I never expected to win – just got super lucky I guess!”

Turning on post notifications from official national park social media accounts can provide insider access to last-minute ticket releases. Since the parks post flash announcements about ticket availability on channels like Facebook and Twitter, enabling notifications ensures you’re one of the first to know. This gives you a jump on the competition when it comes to scoring elusive tickets.

Take Yellowstone National Park’s Facebook page, for example. During the busy season, they regularly post unexpected campsite availability or last minute Old Faithful Inn rooms. Enthusiast Max Chen has scoring notifications enabled, which allowed him to book a campsite just two weeks out in July. “Without the notifications, I would have never thought to randomly check,” he said. “Scoring that spot was total luck!”

Grand Teton National Park similarly posts flash notices on Twitter whenever a handful of campsites become available at popular locations like Jenny Lake. Park regular Amanda Thompson said she once snagged a coveted Jenny Lake spot in August after getting a Twitter notification that a few cancelled sites had been released. “My phone dinged, and within 5 minutes I had booked one of the openings. Thank you Twitter notifications!” she laughed.

For Yosemite National Park, social media manager Stephanie Davis advises prospective visitors to turn on notifications from the park’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. “We post real-time updates whenever a few campsites open up, which could make the difference in whether you visit Yosemite or not,” she shared. Davis said enabling notifications and then promptly acting when an announcement is made can make an impromptu Yosemite visit possible, even during peak times.
Rocky Mountain National Park has an extremely active Twitter account that posts near-daily alerts about camping availability during the high season. Camper Aditi Acharya set up notifications after striking out trying to book months in advance. “I had given up hope. Then in early August, they posted about a loop in Glacier Basin opening up, and I immediately booked an amazing spot we never expected to get,” she said.

Beyond camping, other high-demand park activities like ranger-led tours or equipment rentals might have last minute slots too. Grand Canyon National Park periodically announces specialty tours via social channels, while Yellowstone rents out spots in its photo blinds on Instagram. Key is getting the news first before the limited spots disappear again.
“Basically, set up notifications and then wait in eager anticipation for that exciting ping,” advises Stephanie Lum, an avid national park visitor. “When that alert comes in announcing an availability you want, pull the trigger immediately. Procrastinating or waiting could mean missing out.” Lum said keeping your payment info handy is wise too, so you can finalize booking in just minutes.

While scoring coveted national park tickets often requires planning many months ahead, hope isn’t lost if you’re trying to book a trip at the last minute. Keeping an eagle eye out for last minute cancellations can sometimes reveal surprise vacancies at popular parks, even during peak visiting seasons.
Avid hiker Sam Johnson explained how obsessively checking for cancellations helped him get coveted backpacking permits on short notice. "A couple weeks before our trip, I started monitoring the Yosemite permit reservation site multiple times a day," he said. "Then miraculously, two adjacent Half Dome permits for the exact dates we needed popped up!" According to Sam, cancellations seem to happen most frequently 7 to 10 days prior to the permit start date.

Of course, rolling the dice on cancellations is risky. You may strike out altogether. But frequent checker Leslie Lum suggests persistence can pay off. “I checked the Zion National Park campground availability obsessively the week before our hoped-for trip. For days, nothing opened up. But suddenly, two riverside sites appeared available 3 days prior to our dates. We snatched them immediately!”

Calling lodges and campgrounds directly rather than relying on websites is another cancellation trick. Grand Canyon trip planner Stephanie Chen explained, “Online it might show everything booked up. But when I called Phantom Ranch, they said a bunk bed had just been cancelled that morning! I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t phoned.”

Personal connections can also provide insider access to cancellations. Rocky Mountain National Park enthusiast Darren Thompson was despairing about getting a summer backcountry permit. “Then my cousin, who works in the park office, tipped me off to a coveted Glacier Gorge-Black Lake permit that had just been cancelled. I booked it immediately!”

Be aware that cancellation spots fill incredibly fast, usually instantaneously. Having all your payment and trip details ready means you can finalize booking in just minutes. For high-demand experiences like Phantom Ranch or Half Dome, having an autofill payment method set up improves your chances of nabbing that coveted last minute spot before anyone else.
While obsessively hunting cancellations can pay off, it's also important to be realistic. June cancellations for Old Faithful Inn rooms or Jenny Lake campsites are uncommon. But outside peak summer months, diligently tracking cancellations can absolutely help you gain admission to popular parks.

Come fall, cancellation spots start opening up more frequently. Darren explained, "October seemed to be the sweet spot. Campers cancel trips due to school starting, and weather cools down. I scored amazing Arches and Zion sites by regularly checking."

Of course, booking cancellations requires extreme flexibility. But dealing with uncertainty and last minute changes may be worth the tradeoff of a hard-to-get park visit. When a cancellation spot aligns perfectly with your own dates, it feels like destiny.

Leveraging your personal network to get the inside scoop on availability can greatly improve your odds of scoring hard-to-get national park tickets. Who you know makes a difference, as locals and those with connections often have visibility into last-minute openings before the general public.
Lifelong Yellowstone enthusiast Alan Chen explained how tapping into his network was key to scoring coveted Old Faithful Inn stays in August two years in a row. “My college roommate works in the park’s hospitality office, so she gives me a heads up a few days before they release a batch of new rooms,” he said. “Without her tip off, those rooms would get snapped up instantly.”

Thanks to his sister’s status as a Yellowstone tour guide, Ryan Smith has scored prime campsites that never officially went on sale. “My sister’s company reserves a block of Fishing Bridge sites, but they don’t always use them all,” he said. “So she would grab an unused one for me, even in July.” Smith said he lucked out with family connections, but suggests asking any local park contacts to keep you in mind if they hear of vacancies.
Jenny Hess has a childhood friend whose family owns a lodge near Grand Teton. When her own booking fell through at the last minute, her connection came through with vacant cabins. “It’s all about who you know,” Hess said. “I got to stay minutes from the park because my friend hooked it up.” Like Smith, she advises travelers to utilize any personal or professional contacts who live or work near national parks.

Beyond locals, liaising with tour operators can grant you access too. Due to partnerships and allotments, they have availability individual travelers can’t get. Amanda Chen booked a stay at Yosemite’s famed Wawona Hotel on short notice after being referred by a tour operator friend. “She reserved blocks of rooms there, so referred me to her company when I was coming up empty finding a place to stay,” Chen said.
Safia Singh explained that enlisting her Glacier National Park tour guide led to scoring a coveted spot at the fully booked Lake McDonald Lodge. “Our guide had a partnership with the lodge, allowing her to reserve a certain number of rooms. She gave us one of her unused spots - a total lifesaver!”

Tour operators often have preferential access to limited tickets and hard-to-get reservations in sought after national parks, meaning partnering with them can greatly improve your odds of admission. Thanks to allotments, partnerships, and insider access, many tour companies can simply request spots that individual travelers cannot.

Leveraging these company connections and benefits can help you score coveted tickets, even during peak visiting seasons. Lacey Hess explained how after striking out trying to independently book a Grand Canyon overnight rafting trip, she discovered companies like Out Wild offer guaranteed departures. "Even though the National Park website showed everything booked, I was able to join a departure through the tour operator. Their partnerships basically guaranteed we'd go."

Daniel Murphy had a similar experience when researching the famous Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The rustic lodge was fully booked online, but by booking through a tour operator, he secured a bunk. "I don't think I could have gotten Phantom Ranch any other way. The partners basically have reservations on hold."

Access to limited concessions like Phantom Ranch or specialty guided tours is a major advantage of using tour operators. But even for more standard accommodations, the partnerships they leverage can help. Yosemite lodging enthusiast Meg Smith found rooms at the iconic Wawona Hotel sold out. But through a tour company, a room "magically opened up." She suspects allotments were involved.

Ryan Miller struggled to find a place to stay near Grand Teton. "Everything was ridiculously expensive or sold out. But joining a Grand Teton Lodge Company tour meant I could book one of their cabins at a reasonable rate. It was the only way I could swing staying right in the park."

Beyond leveraging allotments, tour operators also provide insider access to cancellations. Nature lover Stephanie Park shared, "I couldn't get a backcountry permit for Glacier National Park. But by joining a Glacier Wilderness Guides trip, they snapped up a coveted spot that freed up last minute."

Partnering with a reputable tour operator can also eliminate stress about planning complex itineraries spanning multiple parks or requiring special gear. Adrian Johnson raved, "Yellowstone to Glacier tours by companies like Zephyr handle all the logistics and equipment. Way better than trying to plan that route myself as a first timer!"

Of course, joining a tour has downsides, like rigid schedules or group experiences. But for hard-to-plan parks, the benefits often make tours worthwhile. Monica Lum said, "Not my normal style, but I'm glad I did a Green Tortoise Yosemite tour. It took the hassle out of trying to book Half Dome permits and lodging in the Valley."

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